The Bible says there is one God. But, in other parts of the Bible, God is three: Father, Son, and Spirit. How can it be both? This is a question that has mystified people for thousands of years. And, while we can’t fully explain it, I think we can better understand what it is that we can’t fully understand.
The claim in the Bible is that God is transcendent. A divine being through whom we live, move, and have our being, or as Gods says, “I AM.” But we live here in this universe so, when God appears, it will make sense in some ways, but in other ways, it will break our categories. This happens all the time when people encounter the God of the Bible.
Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God appears in complicated ways that don’t quite fit our categories. One common way this happens is with God’s attributes. So, an attribute is a way to describe what something is like. For example, a soccer ball is round. Or, God is wise.
Let’s take God’s wisdom. So, the Book of Proverbs says that God created the world by His wisdom. But then, there are also poems in the Book of Proverbs that describe God’s wisdom as a person, A co-worker through whom God architected the universe. So, God’s attributes become a separate character. This also happens with God’s glory, which sometimes appears as a human figure on a throne engulfed in fire.
Or, take God’s word, which He can speak to people, but sometimes His word appears like a person.
The biblical authors believe there is only one all-powerful God. But they are comfortable talking about them as different characters. This is part of the way the biblical authors portray the one God’s complex identity. They are God’s attributes and also distinct from God.
Once we learn to spot that way of talking about God’s identity, you begin to see it all over the Scriptures. In fact, you find it in the first sentences of the Bible that mention the Spirit of God.
So, the opening line of the Bible is pretty familiar: “In the beginning, God created…”
But then keep reading. Who is it that we see within creation hovering over the waters? The Spirit of God. So, the spirit refers to God’s personal presence and energy that we can interact with here within creation.
And so the Bible can refer to God’s Spirit as distinct from God. Distinct from God and also God. It’s God’s Spirit. And while this sounds strange from our perspective, this complexity is what the biblical authors are trying to get us to see.
So, we’ve looked at God’s attributes and God’s Spirit. Now, let’s make our last stop at exploring God’s complex identity in the Hebrew Scriptures, with a character called the “Son of Man.”
In the Bible, only one God is to worship, which makes this story in the Book of Daniel really surprising. Daniel has a dream about a human figure, called the Son of Man, which means a member of humanity. And Daniel dreams about this human getting elevated on a cloud up into God’s space, and then this human sits at the right hand of God’s heavenly throne, and all humanity worships this human alongside God.
This human is a part of God’s identity. This vision is about the climactic hope of the whole biblical story. God and humanity become one, so they can rule the world together as one.
So, think back over everything we’ve looked at. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s identity is complex. And so, when Jesus’ followers encounter God as the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, they already had categories for how these could all be the One God of the Bible.
In the New Testament, we’re introduced to Jesus of Nazareth, and He is human, but way more. His favorite title to call himself was the “Son of Man.” And the claim is that He is this complex God becoming human to unite other humans with God. So the Gospels portray Jesus as fully human. And also as YHWH, the God of Israel.
Jesus went around saying and doing things that only YHWH can do, like: forgiving people’s sins, or calming the chaotic waters…
So, they are saying that Jesus is a human, distinct from God, and also God. And, that might sound crazy unless you’ve been reading the Hebrew Scriptures, which prepared you for it.
Jesus’ first followers, the Apostles, talked about His identity using the language of God’s attributes. They called Jesus the “Glory of God.” Or the apostle Paul called Jesus “The Wisdom of God.” Or John opens his Gospel calling Jesus the “Word of God, through whom the world was created,” and then he says: “The Word was with God and was God.”
Jesus, who is portrayed as God become human, would talk to God as a distinct person, and when he did, he called him “Father.”
When Jesus talked about God, he wasn’t referring to an abstract force or energy, he was talking about a personal being that you can relate to. There are a lot of personal images of God in the Bible – ruler, creator, judge… but, Jesus consistently refers to God as “My Father.” Jesus experienced God as a source of infinite love.
He said: “the Father has loved me since before the creation of the world.”
Apparently, Jesus knew the Father as an eternally others-centered, life-giving being. Like in the story about Jesus’ baptism, when the Father says from heaven: “This is My Son whom I love.”
In that story, the person who brings that message of love from the Father to the Son is the Spirit of God. So God’s spirit, here within creation, it is through the Spirit that we interact with the divine. And the same was true for Jesus. Through the Spirit, He experienced the Father’s love.
Jesus promised that through Him, the Spirit would go out and share the Father’s love with all humanity and with all creation. So, it can look like there are three distinct Gods, but in some way, they’re also one.
This is what, later, followers of Jesus called “The Trinity.” Father, the Son, and the Spirit are the one God of the Bible. But, this isn’t just a philosophy puzzle. To describe God as a Tri-unity is to claim that the universe is held together by an eternal community of love.
Which is something that we can’t fully understand, but the God of the Bible isn’t a being that you understand. The point is to know and be known, by this God, so that we can participate in His love.